Diversity and Democracy

Moral Discernment: Essential Learning for a Principled Society

In Black Womanist Ethics, theologian Katie Cannon (1988) writes of generations of black women and their ability to discern their moral situations in the context of their historical time, setting, and roles in life. Cannon suggests that the capacity to discern—to observe and make sense or meaning—is central to one’s ability to make ethical choices and to take moral action. This complex capacity is at the very heart of one of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U’s) categories of Essential Learning Outcomes for a twenty-first-century liberal education: the development of personal and social responsibility. These outcomes, including ethical reasoning and action, are key to preparing students “both for a globally engaged democracy and for a dynamic, innovation-fueled economy” (National Leadership Council 2007, 11­–12).

The idea that moral and ethical development is central to student development in college, and that it therefore should be addressed in the general education curriculum, is not new. The emphasis on developing the whole student by attending to his or her intellectual, interpersonal, moral, and intercultural needs is as old as the liberal arts tradition. Yet although many colleges and universities stress the importance of personal and social responsibility in their mission statements, research from AAC&U’s Core Commitments initiative indicates that a gap remains between the perceived importance of these outcomes and the actual attention they are given on campuses (Dey 2009). Several well-validated measures based on long-established models of moral development exist to help colleges and universities begin closing this gap.

Moral Development and Abstract Dilemmas

James Rest (Rest and Narvaez 1994), a developmental psychologist who studied moral and ethical development, identified four components of moral development:

  • Moral sensitivity—the ability to interpret a situation in moral and ethical terms;
  • Moral judgment—the ability to determine a course of action in the context of what is just;
  • Moral motivation—the ability to select an appropriate course of action among multiple good alternatives; and
  • Moral character—the courage and skills to follow a course of action in response to a situation.

These separate components, when braided together, constitute a moral whole involving cognitive complexity, interpersonal sensitivity, the courage to take action, and the skills to act appropriately. Rest spent his entire career demonstrating that it is possible to assess an individual’s level of moral development and to design educational experiences that enable an individual, over time, to become more consistent and mature in exercising moral judgment.

Rest based his work on moral judgment on the model of moral development created by another developmental psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984). In the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, Kohlberg asked whether there exists any sense of a universal moral or ethical perspective that would keep people from harming one another. To answer this question, he traveled the world interviewing people about moral dilemmas they had experienced and how they made sense of these dilemmas and took action. After years of such research, he proposed a six-stage model in which each stage incorporated the characteristics of the previous one at a greater level of complexity. Briefly, the six stages are

1. “Authority” stage: What is moral is defined by the authority figure, who is to be strictly obeyed by the follower.

2. “Reciprocity” stage: What is moral is defined by the authority figure, but the follower seeks to bargain with the authority figure: “I will do something for you if you will do something for me.”

3. “Good Girl/Nice Boy” stage: What is moral is defined by the peer group. Followers seek to remain in good standing with their peers by following the rules determined by the group. This leads to competition for power and influence among peer groups.

4. “Law and Order” stage: What is moral is defined by laws that the majority makes (which essentially control the competing interests of the peer groups). There is little recognition that the rights of any minority can be overlooked by the majority.

5. “Social Justice” stage: What is moral is defined with consideration for what is right and just for minority groups as well as the majority.

6. “Principled Reasoning” stage: What is moral is undergirded by principles of goodness and justice.

Building on Kohlberg’s pioneering work in identifying these six stages, Rest developed the Defining Issues Test (DIT), which measures moral development in the context of Kohlberg’s model. Researchers have used the DIT widely with college students and increasingly with individuals in professions such as law, dentistry, and medicine. The DIT requires individuals to identify the reasoning they would use to make choices in response to six moral dilemmas. The responses are then mapped along the Kohlberg model. According to DIT results, most individuals have reasoning that ranges across the Kohlberg stages, but most also demonstrate a central tendency in their reasoning (Rest and Narvaez 1994).

Moral Development and Real-Life Applications

Additional research has expanded and complicated the models developed by Kohlberg and Rest. Carol Gilligan, also a developmental psychologist and a close colleague of Kohlberg, questioned whether or not abstract dilemmas such as those presented by the DIT are sufficient to measure how individuals would respond to an actual moral dilemma facing them in real time. Gilligan had planned to investigate this question by studying young men facing the military draft during the Vietnam War, but when the lottery system was instituted, she studied women facing decisions about abortion instead. Her research added significantly to our understanding of moral reasoning, generating especially nuanced findings about the different reasoning patterns exhibited by men and women. I will highlight only a few of these findings here.

Gilligan found that at the early stages of moral reasoning, a person’s moral motivation often had at its core the preservation of the self—a deep sense of the need for physical or psychological survival, with a literal fear of being harmed if one did not obey an externally imposed moral code (1993). At the middle stages of moral reasoning, a person’s motivation often came from the need to be the selfless one—to please everyone in order to be seen as a good person. And at the later stages of moral reasoning, the individual was motivated by the idea of the truth-seeking self—the need to be a self with voice and rights while also recognizing the voices and needs of others.

Together, Kohlberg’s and Gilligan’s models of moral reasoning and behavior provide a complex understanding of how students may be making meaning of the moral dilemmas that surround them in college and in the larger society. The challenge is for institutions to apply this understanding to create general education programs and institutional climates that support students’ moral development.

Implications for Education

One avenue toward prioritizing students’ moral development involves underscoring its connection to the intellectual development that is so often higher education’s focus. Research in student intellectual development conducted by William G. Perry (1998), Mary Field Belenky and colleagues (1986), and Patricia M. King and Karen Strohm Kitchener (1994), among others, demonstrates strong relationships between dualistic or dichotomous thinking and the early stages of moral development; more multiplistic, subjective, and procedural thinking and the middle stages of moral development; and more constructivist and contextual ways of thinking and the upper stages of moral development. Thus our duty as educators to help students become more complex learners cannot be separated from our duty to help them become more ethically astute.

How, then, does what we know about our students’ moral and intellectual development affect how we should shape our educational environments? As educators, we might begin to address this broad query by asking some specific questions:

1. How do we assess the moral reasoning of our students? If real-life moral dilemmas are an accurate way of determining reasoning, how do we allow students of all ages—traditional and nontraditional—to bring their real-life experiences to bear on their courses and learning assignments?

2. How do we design developmentally appropriate ways to help students think about such issues as academic and personal conduct? For example, students who cheat rarely see themselves as violating a social contract with others in the class. Peer pressure is a strong influence on what is considered good or acceptable behavior that could be used to help students consider the broader context for their actions.

3. How do we help students realize that majority rule doesn’t always equate with what is good? Segregation, for example, is morally reprehensible, but for several centuries, it was not illegal in the United States.

4. How do we help different groups on campus, who may have different world views and different ideas about what constitutes appropriate behavior, come to a shared understanding of how a community determines its social contract in the presence of diversity? How do students develop the capacity to take seriously the perspectives of others—especially when they disagree?

5. How consistent is the campus culture in terms of what it expects of its citizens and what it rewards?

6. Who demonstrates moral leadership on campus?

7. How do we effectively help students think about moral and ethical dilemmas in the context of global society?

8. How do we harness our students’ life experiences in shaping the dilemmas we examine in our classes and in our disciplines?

Such questions have implications not only for classroom experiences, but also for institutional culture. Linda Trevino and Gary Weaver (2003) study organizational environments and how they shape the individuals in those environments. Always skeptical of organizations blaming “a few bad apples in the barrel” for bad behavior, they study “the barrels” to see what moral mindset organizations reinforce and reward in their members. Using Kohlberg’s approach, they often find that organizations militate against upper levels of moral reasoning.

If Trevino and Weaver are right, when we measure our students’ moral reasoning in the context of their decision making alone, we are only doing part of our job. We need to look seriously at our college cultures and the ways in which we do—or do not—help students mature in this area. We need to ask, how do we—faculty, staff, students—learn to discern the moral situations of our times and find ways to appropriately act on them? How do we all develop moral sensitivity, judgment, motivation, and character? How do we come to understand that development as our collective responsibility as a community?


Fortunately, many colleges and universities are already demonstrating strong commitments to promoting students’ moral and ethical development. Among these are the twenty-three institutions that participated in AAC&U’s Core Commitments initiative’s leadership consortium. Two of these schools, the United States Military Academy and the United States Air Force Academy, have created centers for the study of moral and ethical development using the student development models discussed in this article.

Our work as educators to help students develop mature capacities for democratic engagement cannot be separated from our work to help them develop mature capacities for ethical and moral reasoning. Civic engagement requires an integration of students’ moral reasoning, empathic sensitivity, and the courage to act. Thus to prepare students for participation in our modern democracy, the curriculum should provide opportunities for students to explore the ethical dilemmas of our time, to practice thinking about moral challenges, and to accept responsibility for taking appropriate action.


Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. 1986. Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Cannon, Katie Geneva. 1988. Black Womanist Ethics. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.

Dey, Eric L. 2009. “Another Inconvenient Truth: Capturing Campus Climate and Its Consequences.” Diversity & Democracy 12 (1). http://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/

Gilligan, Carol. 1993. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

King, Patricia M., and Karen Strohm Kitchener. 1994. Developing Reflective Judgment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. The Psychology of Moral Judgment: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. New York: Harper and Row.

National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Perry, William G., Jr. 1998. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rest, James R., and Darcia Narvaez, eds. 1994. Moral Development in the Professions: Psychology and Applied Ethics. New York: Psychology Press.

Trevino, Linda, and Gary Weaver. 2003. Managing Ethics in Business Organizations: Social Scientific Perspectives. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

L. Lee Knefelkamp is professor emerita of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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